Franken, Burris Pose Dilemma for Democrats
Tuesday, January 06, 2009 at 6:00 am
In the first week of the 111th Congress, Democrats already have themselves in a pickle.
Party leaders hoping to block the appointment of Roland Burris to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate are pointing to the same legal technicality that Republicans hope to use to keep Minnesotan Al Franken (D) from taking a seat of his own.
Under wildly different circumstances, neither Burris nor Franken has received official state certification to fill the seats — Burris because his appointment came under a cloud of scandal; Franken because his opponent has contested the razor-thin election results. As the new Congress prepares to launch with swearing-in ceremonies Tuesday afternoon, Republican leaders hope to use the lack-of-certification argument to block Franken. Some political experts say that Democratic leaders should tread carefully if they plan to refuse Burris for the same reason — or risk of falling victim to their own standards.
“Inconsistency can be a political problem for Democrats given how delicate this issue is,” Julian E. Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University, said in an email. “The Burris issue is front page news so this is not a decision that can be done and hidden … [I]f they are going to depend on a technicality to keep Burris out, they can’t ignore a similar technicality with Franken.”
Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, was appointed to the coveted Senate post last month by Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was arrested just weeks before for alleged attempts to auction off the upper-chamber slot. Democratic leaders — including Obama — have vowed to block Burris from taking the seat on account of the scandal surrounding Blagojevich. Illinois Sec. of State Jesse White on Monday provided party leaders with some justification when he refused to sign Burris’s election certification papers. White, who has repeatedly said he won’t certify any appointee of the embattled governor, cited a desire “to be true to my word.”
Undeterred, Burris said Monday that his appointment is perfectly legal, and the controversy swirling around it is an invention of the media. He said he has every intention of visiting the Capitol Tuesday to be sworn in.
“I am going there to be seated,” Burris said at an animated press conference as he was leaving Chicago for Washington Monday. “I am the junior senator from the state of Illinois. That’s all I can say.”
If Senate Democratic leaders turn him away at the chamber door, Burris added, “My lawyers will take it from there, and we’ll see what happens.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s state Canvassing Board on Monday certified Franken as the winner of his contest by a 225-vote margin over incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman (R). Coleman’s camp vowed quickly to file a lawsuit in Minnesota state court protesting the results. Minnesota state law prevents the election certification from becoming finalized until that legal process has ended.
Senate Republicans, led by GOP Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), have vowed to block Franken’s arrival until the lawsuit has played itself out. “There are a lot of questions about double-counted ballots, about absentee ballots that likely favor Norm Coleman that were refused to be counted by the canvassing board,” Cornyn told Fox News Monday. “These issues will all be worked out in court over the next few weeks. But, tomorrow, I do not think Al Franken will have a legal right to claim that Senate seat until all the votes are properly counted.”
Kathryn L. Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said that, in light of the Burris episode, the Democrats’ success in seating Franken this week might hinge on how they present their argument.
“If the frame is about certification of elections, it does become complicated,” Pearson said. But if the frame is that the canvassing board has determined Franken the winner, she added, “then the case could be made that these are two very distinct situations.”
The Burris issue has become a thorn in the sides of Democrats, who are hoping to use a special provisional designation to solidify Franken’s spot in the upper chamber as quickly as possible — a designation granting all the voting and committee-assignment rights of the office, but making it easier to remove Franken if Coleman’s claims that he won are later discovered to be true.
Such a provisional designation is not without precedent. Following a tight Senate race in Louisiana in 1996, Democrat Mary Landrieu was seated “without prejudice” after her opponent brought charges of election fraud. (A Senate investigation found that the election irregularities were not enough to remove Landrieu from office. In November she was elected to her third term.)
Cornyn, who was recently elected to his second term, referred to such precedents as “ancient.”
In the eyes of some political experts, the entire episode is nothing more than a partisan jousting match with little lasting significance. Stephen Hess, a political scholar with the Brookings Institution, said the state-certification issue is “too inside-baseball” to resonate in any way that would foil the underlying plans of Democratic leaders.
“They’ll do what they want to do,” Hess said. “This thing is going to take a few days to play out — or a few weeks — but it really doesn’t have much political significance…It seems quite clear that very quickly there are going to be two new Democratic senators.”
Still, even Hess conceded that the arrival of Burris in Washington creates an unwelcome distraction for Democrats who’d hoped to use the momentum from November’s elections to move an enormous economic recovery package (among other party priorities) early this year.
“Blagojevich has put them in one hell of a bind,” Hess said. “It’s fascinating to watch them squirm their way out of it.”
The original version of this story stated that Coleman’s camp immediately filed suit contesting Franken’s win in Minnesota. As of Tuesday morning, that suit has yet to be filed.
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